After nearly four years of relatively fruitless negotiations, Pima County is asking South Tucson to pay off $1.9 million in delinquent jail fees and interest.
"Everybody has to pay their fair share and costs," said Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.
South Tucson owes for prisoners arrested by city police officers on municipal misdemeanor charges who are housed at the county jail.
Recognizing the square-mile city's limited resources, Huckelberry said he's willing to have the two governments sign a contract for South Tucson to start making installment payments, but South Tucson needs to start paying down the debt, which he said is an unfair burden on the rest of the community.
Huckelberry said he would like to have the bill paid off over five years. If South Tucson would commit to that, Huckelberry said, he would be willing to suggest the Board of Supervisors forgive the interest portion of the past-due amount.
As of April, South Tucson owed the county more than $1.344 million in principal, dating to 2007, plus $562,973 in interest.
If South Tucson wants to stretch payments for the full amount out for 10 years, the county would need to continue collecting interest of up to 3 percent, he said.
"We understand that this has been lingering for some time," South Tucson City Manager Luis Gonzales said.
Gonzales said he and Huckelberry plan to meet to discuss the debt issue, and he plans to advise his City Council to take up the matter and find a resolution.
Gonzales blamed the problem partly on the fact that many of those arrested in South Tucson don't live there, making for a difficult burden for the city to bear.
"Most of the people who are incarcerated, over 60 percent, are from outside the city of South Tucson," Gonzales said.
City officials have argued in the past that the costs to jail nonresidents arrested within its boundaries should be shared among other jurisdictions in the region.
Following a 2012 study done by the city, South Tucson officials argued future jail charges assessed to South Tucson for people without a South Tucson address should be "divided proportionally among the other jurisdictions in Pima County."
Pima County Supervisor Ramon Valadez, whose District 2 includes the city, agreed some consideration should be given to South Tucson because of the unique situation it faces.
"The truth is, South Tucson is unfortunately located in an area that has a lot of pass-through traffic," Valadez said.
He said the past-due amount the city owes must be paid off, but said the county should at least discuss ways to ease the burden on South Tucson in the future.
Huckelberry said such an agreement would not be fair to other municipalities that pay their entire jail bills.
"The arrests in South Tucson protect the residents of their city," Huckelberry said.
Under state law, counties are required to build and operate jails. The costs to house people arrested on local charges are charged to the individual municipalities, while those arrested on state charges are covered by the counties.
Huckelberry noted that for the past year and a half the city has paid monthly jail charges, but never caught up on payments it missed after the recession hit.
This isn't the first time the city of South Tucson has fallen behind on jail fees.
On at least two prior occasions, the city deeded property to the county instead of paying cash.
Gonzales said such an arrangement might not be possible this time because the South Tucson is small and has limited properties at its disposal.
Did you know?
Fast facts behind South Tucson's jail dilemma:
• South Tucson police arrest 3.5 times as many misdemeanor offenders per capita as do police in Tucson and 19 times as many as Oro Valley police.
• About 36 percent of people arrested in South Tucson are homeless.
• Unemployment has hovered at about 17 percent for several years.
• More than 53 percent of residents fall below the poverty line.
Contact reporter Patrick McNamara at 573-4241 or firstname.lastname@example.org.